A Tale of Two Falwells
Add “lack of imagination” to the list of legitimate criticisms of Jerry Falwell, Jr, but you cannot accuse him of being inconsistent, at least where his support for President Donald Trump is concerned.
Interviewed by Joe Heim for the Washington Post Magazine, the president of Liberty University once again proclaimed his steadfast belief in President Donald Trump:
Is there anything President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?
That’s the shortest answer we’ve had so far.
Only because I know that he only wants what’s best for this country, and I know anything he does, it may not be ideologically “conservative,” but it’s going to be what’s best for this country, and I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.
Among other pull quotes that made the rounds from the interview were “It may be immoral for them not to support him, because he’s got African American employment to record highs, Hispanic employment to record highs,” and “It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation.” When asked, “What about him exemplifies Christianity and earns him (Trump) your support?” Falwell answered bluntly “What earns him my support is his business acumen.” Of course, the whole interview should be read in context, and lest anyone thinks the dastardly Washington Post twisted and manipulated his words:
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) January 1, 2019
If nothing else, Jerry Falwell Jr. has been consistent. His name has become synonymous with “supporter of Donald Trump” almost from the beginning. During the campaign, Falwell was one of a number of evangelical Christian leaders who openly advocated that Trump was the one for people of faith. He frequently served as surrogate to the Trump campaign, as an apologist for how the most worldly of men was the one the faithful had been waiting on. This was no doubt a shock to other candidates for the GOP nomination in 2016 who were counting on the Christian right to reject Trump on moral grounds. When Senator Ted Cruz used Liberty University as his staging for his presidential campaign announcement, it is doubtful he foresaw a few months later that Liberty’s president would be introducing Donald Trump on that same stage, saying “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” So effusive was Falwell’s praise of Trump in introducing him, he later felt compelled to clarify “it was not my intent to compare Trump to Jesus Christ in my introduction at Liberty,” when he explained his endorsement in a 2016 Washington Post Op-Ed.
But he did endorse Trump, and evangelicals went heavily for Trump in both the primaries and general election in 2016. But Falwell’s support seems to transcend mere politics to something else. “Trump reminds me so much of my father,” the younger Falwell had stated on Fox News. Such a statement, which many took as a shocking piece of hyperbole, might actually make more sense if taken sincerely and at face value. So maybe the answer to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s political leanings can be traced to the well-known path of Jerry Falwell, Sr., and the point in time when the elder Falwell changed his own mind about engaging in politics.
“The Kind of Broad Agenda to Unite Conservatives”
When the elder Falwell collapsed in his university office in May 2007 and subsequently passed away, he had traveled a long road that started and ended in Lynchburg, Virginia. The son of a bootlegger who had drunk himself to death, by the age of 18 Jerry Falwell chose the faith of his mother and dedicated the rest of his life to Christianity. The small group he started his church with in 1956 grew into the 20K plus member Thomas Road Baptist Church, and the small college he started in 1971 is now Liberty University, boasting itself to be “one of the largest Christian colleges in the world, and the largest private non-profit university in the United States.” First radio, then television brought the preacher to national prominence in Christian circles.
But it was politics that made the senior Falwell a known entity to the secular world.
It wasn’t how Falwell had envisioned his ministry goals. In a somewhat notorious sermon entitled “Ministers and Marchers” in March 1964, he declared: “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners…If as much effort could be put into winning people to Jesus across the land as is being exerted in the present civil rights movement, America would be turned upside down for God.” He would later disavow the sermon and his criticism of the civil rights movement leaders.
By the late ’70s, the preacher from Lynchburg had a change of heart:
He urged churches to register voters, and urged religious conservatives to campaign for candidates who supported their positions. He organized “I Love America” rallies blending patriotism and conservative values, and the students at Liberty University, which he founded, produced their own upbeat presentations around the country
As Mr. Falwell told it, at a meeting of conservatives in his office in 1979, Paul Weyrich, a political strategist, said to him: “Jerry, there is in America a moral majority that agrees about the basic issues. But they aren’t organized.”
To Mr. Falwell, that suggested a movement of people, not just evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, but other Protestants and Catholics and Jews, even atheists, with a similar agenda on abortion, gay rights, patriotism and moral values. “I was convinced,” he wrote, “that there was a ‘moral majority’ out there among these more than 200 million Americans sufficient in number to turn back the flood tide of moral permissiveness, family breakdown and general capitulation to evil and to foreign policies such as Marxism-Leninism.”
The movement, he said, had a simple agenda — pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-moral, and pro-American — precisely the kind of broad agenda to unite conservatives of different faiths and backgrounds.
It wasn’t conjecture and guessing that produced the idea of a large group of like-minded people; it was hard numbers, marketing, and doing analytics before analytics was cool, as reported in The New Yorker Magazine way back in 1981:
Since 1973, he has employed an advertising agency and a Massachusetts computer-consulting firm called Epsilon Data Management, both of which have what they call “inputs on the creative side.” The main job of Epsilon Data Management is to help coordinate the mailings. Through this firm, Falwell can make appeals to a variety of different constituencies with a series of computer-printed letters appropriate to each. One set of appeals, for example, stresses patriotism, another missionary work, another the menace of pornography and homosexuality. Through Epsilon, Falwell manages four different “clubs,” whose members contribute to his various ministries monthly sums averaging about twenty dollars. His hundred and seventy thousand Faith Partners and the forty thousand members of his I Love America Club contribute to the general “Gospel Hour” fund; the members of his Founders Club and his 15,000 Club give money for buildings and for scholarships, respectively, at Liberty Baptist College. Falwell’s televised appeals alternate among these various constituencies.
Once the expansion from ministry to politics was decided, a mailing list is a mailing list and the constituency for the message is practically built in. The “Moral Majority,” both the political group and the people that it came to represent, were well known to Falwell and the political consultants he worked with from such outreach. As it turned out, they were primed and ready to be tapped as the virgin political resource they were. The conservative side in the culture wars was ready for its debut, and the Reagan Revolution proved to be the opportune moment.
By the time Ronald Reagan appeared in Lynchburg a month before his 1980 election to the presidency, the dream of a monolithic block of conservative Christian voters seemed to have come to fruition. Although officially disbanded in 1989, the legacy of the Moral Majority, an interlocking of interests of politically-minded conservative Christians and Republican Party politics, would be a given fact for politicos for the next 35 years.
“What earns him my support is his business acumen.”
Upon Jerry Falwell, Sr.’s death in 2007, the school presidency passed to Jerry Jr., as the other son, Jonathan, inherited the duties of pastor at Thomas Road. In an odd twist, the professional pastor keeps a relatively low profile, while the University of Virginia-trained lawyer is very high profile as an “evangelical leader.” But his success helming the university is not in question. When he took the seat of his father in 2007, Liberty University had assets totaling over $150M. Today, Jerry Falwell, Jr. proudly points out that during his tenure, the net assets for the school have grown to $2.5 Billion.
Shrewd–and often purposefully generous to the school–business deals are part of the equation for the astronomical increase in assets, as is a policy of keeping infrastructure and instructional outlays as low as possible. Having a large distance learning program in place when the internet became ubiquitous to daily life gave the school a huge advantage. But like most universities these days, the real money wasn’t from the students and donors; it was from the federal government. Federally subsidized student loans, Pell grants, and Department of Veteran Affairs education benefits came flooding in through Liberty’s impressive online operation, using the for-profit models of organizations such as the University of Phoenix, but with the advantage of non-profit status:
Falwell was candid about the benefits of the nonprofit status. “It insulated us from the attack on the for-profits,” he told me. And it put him on the same footing with other, more established universities. “There’s no way that an Obama federal government that probably doesn’t care much for schools like Liberty can treat us different than Harvard or Yale or Indiana Wesleyan or the University of Maryland.”
Liberty’s ability to distance itself from for-profit colleges was especially notable given that, by several key metrics, it resembled them more closely than the private nonprofits it was grouped with…
Most striking, though, is how little the university spends on actual instruction. It does not report separate figures for spending on the online school and the traditional college. But according to its most recent figures, from 2016, the university reports spending only $2,609 on instruction per full-time equivalent student across both categories. That is a fraction of what traditional private universities spend (Notre Dame’s equivalent figure is $27,391) but also well behind even University of Phoenix, which spends more than $4,000 per student in many states. It is also behind other hybrid online-traditional nonprofit religious colleges like Ohio Christian University, which spends about $4,500. In 2013, according to an audited financial statement I obtained, Liberty received $749 million in tuition and fees but spent only $260 million on instruction, academic support and student services.
By 2016, Liberty’s net assets had crossed the $1.6 billion mark, up more than tenfold from a decade earlier. Thanks to its low spending on instruction, its net income was an astonishing $215 million on nearly $1 billion in revenue, according to its tax filing – making it one of the most lucrative nonprofits in the country, based simply on the difference between its operating revenue and expenses, in a league with some of the largest nonprofit hospital systems.
With his own business acumen unquestioned, it is easy to see where Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Donald Trump find a large patch of common ground. Both scions to fathers who gave them a head start, each man exceeded in his own way to blaze his own trail, and in many ways outran the cast shadows of their parentage. Falwell, Jr., certainly has the resume and achievements to fit into the “winner” category the president holds so dear, and both men have something the other needs. For Trump, gaining acceptance to the religious right was key to his electoral victory, and their support is necessary to sustain his administration. For Falwell, Jr., being seen as an integral part of Trump’s success could once again bring his brand of evangelical activism to prominence, the way Reagan once did for his father. With success, after all, comes acknowledgement of the achievement of success, and who achieved it.
“I’m not going to tell you that we’ve done better because we’re better people,” he told me. “What I will say is that we’ve always operated from a business perspective. We’ve treated it like a business.” And that’s what first drew him to Trump, he said: the kinship of one businessman to another. “I thought to myself, if there’s one thing this country needs, it’s exactly the methods we employed at Liberty to save the school and make it prosper, and that’s just basic business principles.”
“As I said,” Falwell wrote in a 2016 Washington Post Op-Ed explaining his endorsement of Donald Trump, “Jimmy Carter is a great Sunday School teacher but the divorced and remarried Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan saved this nation when it was in nearly the same condition as it is today.”
“Jerry Falwell can–in a very Christian way–as far as I’m concerned, he can go to hell.”
Jimmy Carter is widely regarded as one of our lesser presidents. The degree to which his failure was a confluence of events that would have overtaken anyone or a result of his own incompetence, will be fodder for historians for time and eternity. At any rate, a combination of ill-conceived “malaise” speeches, economic hardships, and foreign policy disasters renders the Carter Administration at the bottom of every presidential list. The successes of Reagan in following him only add to the perception of failure. The one-time peanut farmer and Sunday School teacher went on to do great humanitarian work after he left the White House, while also courting continued criticisms over his views and comments on things like international policy.
He was also the first national figure to run afoul of the emerging political Christian right.
Carter and Falwell, Sr., were both well-known for their Christian beliefs, but the then-Georgia governor and the Lynchburg preacher openly clashed on the role of faith in public service, politics, and policy. In 1976, Carter sat for his now-infamous Playboy interview in which he admitted to not being perfect, with the line “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” The in my heart being the operative part, being a play on a well-known teaching of Jesus Christ, but that was lost to many, and to the Rev. Falwell, beside the point:
‘There is not a man on earth alive today who was never guilty of lust,’ Falwell said. ‘Because we are human beings.’
But, he added, ‘Giving an interview to Playboy magazine was lending the credence and the dignity of the highest office in the land to a salacious, vulgar magazine that did not even deserve the time of his day… I feel that he was pitching; he was campaigning to an audience that doesn’t read the Baptist Sunday schools quarterlies.’ “
The bad blood only got worse once Carter left office. His public stance on Middle East peace, the Panama Canal, and the Salt II nuclear treaty brought the condemnation from Falwell, Sr., that Carter took as a questioning of his Christian faith.
‘There is nothing any television evangelist can do to shake my faith,’ Carter said. ‘Jerry Falwell can — in a very Christian way — as far as I’m concerned, he can go to hell.’
Falwell issued a statement from his Lynchburg, Va., headquarters saying: ‘I have too much respect for President Carter as our former head of state and brother in Christ to believe he would tell anyone to go to hell.’
Spokesman Mark DeMoss said he could not recall Falwell making the statement referred to by Carter.
But times do change. Whereas his father had strongly condemned Carter’s Playboy interview, Falwell, Jr., had his own run-in with Christians over a Playboy issue. This time it was the one framed on Donald Trump’s “I Love Me” wall of his office in Trump Tower, featuring Trump with a model on the cover, which served as the backdrop for a photo-op with Trump, Falwell, Jr., and his wife.
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) June 21, 2016
Perhaps that incident was on the Liberty University president’s mind during the 2018 commencement for the school, when he commented on the backlash that Carter received over the 1976 Playboy interview while introducing the commencement speaker…Jimmy Carter.
“It saddens me today to think that so many conservative Christians attacked and demeaned Jimmy Carter in the 1970s for quoting Jesus Christ to a secular magazine,” Falwell Jr. said, not mentioning his father’s role in such criticism. Carter, for his part, emphasized common ground, forgiveness, and good humor, joking his appearance had created a crowd “a little bigger than last year,” a gentle jab at President Trump’s 2017 commencement address. But the heart of the former president’s remarks still contrast the differences in the two men’s approaches to application of faith.
Most of all, he challenged the graduates to strive for success — but success as it is judged by God, not the modern world.
“We may not be rich. We may not live to be an old person. We may not have many loyal friends. But neither did Jesus have any of those things, but he lived a perfect life,” said Carter.
“Without any interference from anybody else, all by ourselves, we have complete freedom to make a judgment…We decide whether we tell the truth, or benefit from telling lies. We’re the ones that decide: Do I hate, or am I filled with love? We’re the ones who decide: Do I think only about myself, or do I care for others?”
“I do believe Trump is a good father, is generous to those in need, and is an ethical and honest businessman,” wrote Falwell in his WaPo endorsement of Donald Trump in January of 2016.
Not everyone agrees, not even at Liberty.
“We are fighting a holy war, and this time we are going to win.”
Winning, it seems, solves everything. At least, that is how the old sports adage goes about intra-team issues. Politics seems to have the same effect, or at the very least makes for some interesting alliances in the name of winning. And while there may not be anything new under the sun, as scripture says, there is a distinct evolution. “If a man stands by this book, vote for him. If he doesn’t, don’t,” Jerry Falwell, Sr. would implore while waving a Bible during those Moral Majority rallies in the 80s. By 2017, His son was quoting Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics in tweets to defend twice-removed from the bench former judge Roy Moore from accusations of sexual misconduct. From the days of Falwell, Sr. deriding Carter as “campaigning to an audience that doesn’t read the Baptist Sunday schools quarterlies,” Falwell Jr. now insisted the folks that did should unconditionally support someone who certainly never had.
In the aftermath of the Carter Playboy dust-up, Falwell, Sr. declared “as a private citizen” he would vote for Gerald Ford instead, but feeling the need to qualify it as a personal opinion reveals the impact he knew it would have. Similar language was used by the younger Falwell, before not only endorsing Donald Trump but then joining him on the campaign trail. “I had Liberty University post the tweets explaining that the university was not endorsing anyone and does not endorse political candidates,” he wrote, explaining “this was a personal decision of mine, and I know very well that Liberty has students with a wide diversity of political views, and I respect all of their opinions.”
The latter endorsement caused a minor ripple of dissent on campus. A small number of alumni made a show of returning diplomas. The same Mark DeMoss who had defended the elder Falwell as his chief assistant for many years resigned as president of the universities Board of Trustee’s Executive Committee, after falling out with Falwell, Jr. and taking his complaints public to the Washington Post:
“I’ve been concerned for Liberty University for a couple of months now, and I’ve held my tongue,” DeMoss said. “I think a lot of what we’ve seen from Donald Trump will prove to be difficult to explain by evangelicals who have backed him.
“It bothered me that he said Donald Trump reminded him of his father,” DeMoss said. “Donald Trump certainly does not demonstrate Jerry Falwell Sr.’s graciousness and love for people. Jerry Falwell Sr. would never have made fun of a political opponent’s face or makeup or ears. He would not have personally insulted anybody — ever.”
Falwell Jr. said Tuesday that Trump shares some characteristics with his father. “The only way Mr. Trump was like my father was one, he made politically incorrect statements and didn’t care who disagreed with him, and two, he was very generous to strangers,” Falwell Jr. said.
He added that his father “was well known for personally insulting from the pulpit local politicians who were trying to oppose Liberty University’s zoning.”
Falwell brushed off such protest: “For every student, we lost because of political concerns, we picked up two or three inquiries who support us because of that political stand,” he told the New York Times. And he is right that a few rogue alumni isn’t much of a blip on the radar of a $2.5 billion enterprise. The influence of the old Moral Majority rode the wave of Reagan to prominence and remained a force long after their official disbandment. The evangelical leaders like Falwell who advocate so forcefully for Trump insist supporting him is the only way for Christians to have a chance of maintaining influence in the political realm. And, as we are relentlessly reminded, Trump won.
But what if Trump doesn’t continue to win? Then what? Can a faith movement, once intertwined in politics, be removed again if their chosen champion falls short?
The messy consequences of politicizing faith groups became a problem for Jerry Falwell during the Moral Majority days:
In August of 1980, Falwell told the Washington Post, “I am not one of those who use the phrase ‘Christianizing America.’ ” He had not used that phrase, but just a year before the same paper had quoted him as saying that he wanted to “turn this into a Christian nation.” Since then, he had learned better than to equate “Christian” with “moral”: the Moral Majority was, after all, an organization for Christians and Jews. His position now was that he was an advocate of separation theologically but was ecumenical in matters of politics.
Falwell, Jr. has forged his own path across that high wire:
So you don’t choose a president based on how good they are; you choose a president based on what their policies are. That’s why I don’t think it’s hypocritical.
There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.
He didn’t add that poor people do not enrich Liberty University, or any other school, unless they get a grant, federally subsidized student loan, or VA benefits to pay for tuition. Nor do they become players in the political arena where cash is king, and if it cannot buy results, it certainly buys influence. But they can attend rallies, band together through social media online, and become a force greater than the sum of the parts. That was the origin of the Moral Majority, that the people were there and just needed to be organized. Patriotic-themed rallies and calls for making things as great as they once were worked in the 70s and 80s. Social media and email have replaced mailing lists, but it’s easy to see the vestiges of Falwell, Sr.’s “I Love America” rallies in President Trump’s MAGA spectacles. Falwell the younger has evolved from organizing conservative Christians to mastering how to monetize them. With Donald Trump and the future of America as the new pitch, they have been politically weaponized.
Thus, any doubt of the cause can be attributed to a lack of faith. From Carter being challenged as an insufficiently conservative Christian to this week’s “it may be immoral for them not to support him (Trump),” comments by Falwell when asked about critical evangelical leaders, the cause is too important to be stymied by dissent.
“We are fighting a holy war,” Falwell, Sr., said towards the end of the Moral Majority campaign in 1980, “and this time we are going to win.”
“In short, we need someone to bring this country back from the brink and make America great again in the same way that the right team of professionals helped make Liberty great again between 1987 and today,” Falwell, Jr., said in 2016.
“I know that (Trump) only wants what’s best for this country, and I know anything he does, it may not be ideologically “conservative,” but it’s going to be what’s best for this country, and I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country,” Jerry Falwell said two days ago. It’s an act of faith, then, if imagination cannot give you any hint of an adverse outcome. The Falwells have accomplished much, both for themselves and for others, for decades under the banner of faith. Falwell, Jr., would no doubt decry asking how to square his closing argument in his Trump endorsement of “Jesus said ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged'”, with the Trump Doctrine of Winning which is predicated on judging everyone on worldly terms.
“In reality, only God knows people’s hearts,” Falwell closed his WaPo endorsement of Donald Trump, “You and I don’t, and we are all sinners.”
God only knows the future as well, and in the meantime, some of us sinners trying to be faithful can imagine the Trump presidency not ending well for the country. It will take a little more than just the word of Jerry Falwell, Jr., to take President Trump blindly on faith.